Hash browns hiss as they hit the grill top. Plates and coffee cups clink, and the service bell rings. You don’t need to see the stack of orders fluttering in the kitchen window to know the lunch rush has begun in earnest at L’Arche Tova Café.
Like so many other restaurants in Winnipeg at this time, guests receive a warm welcome at the door. But unlike those other restaurants, L’Arche guests are welcomed by Stacey Friesen, who lives with Down Syndrome.
“My favourite part is greeting people when they come in,” she says, an infectious smile spreading across her face. “The customers that come in are very nice to me. It makes me happy.”
In addition to providing wholesome food and great service, L’Arche Tova Café strives to provide meaningful employment to people with intellectual disabilities. At the same time, it gives the public a chance to get to know people with a developmental disability and their gifts. Ultimately, L’Arche wants to build a more compassionate society where everyone belongs.
That may seem like a tall order, but the L’Arche Tova Café has been doing it successfully for seven years.
“We didn’t really know what was going to happen when we started this, but it’s worked out really well,” says Jim Lapp, Executive Director, L’Arche Winnipeg. “People with developmental disabilities have a great capacity to welcome people, to accept them the way they are. And when people find that the food is good and the welcome is wonderful, it makes them feel like this is a place they want to come back to.”
The café was founded by L’Arche Winnipeg, an organization dedicated to showcasing the unique gifts and talents of people living with disabilities. United Way Winnipeg provided one-time funding to aid startup of the social enterprise café in 2011. The project was such a success, United Way Winnipeg entered into a sustained funding agreement and continues to provide operational support in the amount of $20,600 per year.
It’s easy to see how much that support means to Stacey or any of the dozen or so servers and support staff who are involved in L’Arche Café.
“When I came in this morning, I was giving people hugs and all the other stuff I do,” says Stacey referring to her many other responsibilities including seating people, serving drinks and food, and diligently ensuring all condiments are topped up. “I really like it so far.”
“It’s all about demonstrating that people with disabilities are less about what they can’t do and more about what they can,” Jim says.